Caleb Crain: How I Write
The literary journalist and critic, whose first novel Necessary Errors is out now, talks about his debut, the success of n+1, and why people write for academia.
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
I’ve had a few first books. On the very first one, I was just the translator. It was a 1993 campaign biography of the Czech dissident-turned-president Václav Havel, by Eda Kriseová. In 2001 I published American Sympathy, a scholarly book about friendship between men in early American literature. And now, at age 46, I’m getting around to publishing Necessary Errors.
I suppose the story behind the novel is that I always wanted to write novels, and in the basement I have a box or two of unpublishable manuscripts to prove it. I might have given up if the journal n+1 hadn’t published a novella of mine, Sweet Grafton, in 2008, a vote of confidence that helped me try one more time. Necessary Errors is coming so late in my life that I feel a little sheepish about it. I’ve been through the necessary socialization for the roles of “journalist,” “scholar,” and “critic,” but I’m not at all sure I know how to be a “novelist.”
You do a lot of work with n+1, an exciting literary magazine. There are dozens of new magazines out there, yet n+1 has quickly established itself to a quite remarkable degree in a relatively short time. What do you think was key to n+1’s success that it did, that scores of other literary publications did not do?
I think the talent and ambition of the editors have a lot to do with it. Also, a magazine is only the outward and visible sign of a community of readers and writers, and I think that from its start in 2004, n+1 has understood itself as a community, which is not the same thing as a brand. Every community has an ad hoc and editable set of norms, and n+1 has a set that foster great criticism: an insistence on taking the world of ideas seriously, even if that looks nerdy to outsiders; a catholicity of subject matter; a permission for, and even an encouragement of, disagreement; and a willingness to throw in a few wisecracks every so often.
You have published with an academic press (Yale), a magazine (n+1), and a trade press (Penguin). How did the experience as a writer working with a publisher differ with these different categories of press?
It’s hard to generalize, but here goes. Scholarly journals and university press books are conducting a distinct and somewhat rarefied conversation, which has fairly strict rules about the kinds of argument that are considered persuasive, and the kinds of topics that deserve attention. Journalism has a slightly different set of rules for choosing topics and sorting evidence. Each of the two worlds has freedoms and limits. You can’t write a long and heavily-footnoted argument about Melville’s hermetic mysticism for The London Review of Books, but you can’t write a belletrist ramble through the novels of Wilkie Collins for Leviathan: The Journal of Melville Studies. Probably the most noticeable difference is that academia doesn’t pay writers in money. It pays in reputation, which can only be transmuted into cash inside academia, through the medium of a salaried professorship. Outside the academy, a scholarly reputation may look pretty, but it isn’t good for much. It’s like taking poker chips outside the casino. You can’t buy anything with them at the grocery store.
Between magazines and books, there’s another sort of difference. Often a magazine has a house style—a preferred way of telling stories, a range of acceptable tones, a consensus about what’s interesting and what’s boring—and you need to find a voice for yourself within those parameters. I worked a little more than a decade ago as an editor at a magazine called Lingua Franca, for example, and we had a pretty strong house voice there. My experience so far with book publishing—both scholarly and trade—is that there isn’t much of a house voice. Once they agree to take you on, they give you as much rope as you want. But maybe the book editors whom I’ve worked with so far have indulged me.
Your blog won a Cliopatra Award. In your opinion, what makes for a really good blog that distinguishes itself to the point of both attracting a passionate readership and winning awards? Any tips for aspiring literary bloggers?
My blog has very loyal readers, but it has never had very many of them, so I probably shouldn’t start dispensing tips. I think for me the fun of the blog has been the opportunity to write about matters that no ink-on-paper editor would assign me, like this essay of mine. It’s always more fun to write about things that one isn’t credentialed to write about.
Please recommend three books that readers who enjoy your work would like, but might not think to read, and tell us why you like them.
You write fiction, criticism, and theory. Does any one come more easily (or is more fun) than others for you? Do you approach writing each category in the same way, or does your approach differ?
I’m not sure I write theory. Could we call that stuff interpretive scholarship? Or maybe literary history? I guess the label doesn’t really matter, because I seem to approach scholarly nonfiction and essayistic nonfiction in more or less the same way, probably to the chagrin of my editors. The footnotes were printed when I wrote about the 19th-century con man Henry Wikoff for American Literary History, and they weren’t when I wrote about the ink-on-paper self-blogging of 1930s Britain for The New Yorker, but in both cases I spent a couple of months reading through old books and articles and taking notes, before trying to turn what I’d discovered into a story, punctuated by the occasional reflection on what the story might mean.
Fiction is an entirely different experience for me. Or rather, lack of one. I know that it’s just as much an act of will and an effort of performance as nonfiction, but I’m not as aware that it is. It isn’t “experience-near,” as the psychologists say. The only part that feels under my conscious control is the decision to let myself have the time, energy, and peace of mind that I need in order to write it. But after I’ve made that decision to give myself those things, what I write, and even whether I write at all, don’t feel under my control much at all. I don’t sound very articulate when I try to talk about it, so I’d better not say more.
Maybe because the two modes of writing are so different, I don’t think very many readers of my nonfiction are expecting a novel from me. Not a novel like this one, at any rate. “A bildungsroman? Shouldn’t he be writing about the Gettysburg Address or something?” There may be some puzzlement.
This interview has been edited and condensed.